Breakfast with Champions (Steinhardt, Chung, and the Aizuri Quartet)

1 IMG_6249_edited-1These days, I start many a morning by tuning in to my own version of a talk show: The Curtis Institute of Music’s The World of the String Quartet MOOC. The extent to which I’m enjoying it can be directly measured by how much I look forward to getting on to the next episode even though spring weather is finally here.

What I know about string quartet music, particularly when compared with what there is to know, could just about fill a thimble, so I’m particularly grateful for The World of the String Quartet’s offering of a “right-sized” and engaging overview of the genre. Among other things, Arnold Steinhardt tells real-life stories from his long years with the Guarneri Quartet, Mia Chung offers clear, useful information about “nuts-and-bolts,” and, to cap it off, Steinhardt and the Aizuri Quartet talk about aspects of particular string quartets, after which the Aizuri performs, with consummate style and skill, a sample of what’s discussed.

Of course it’s a nice connecting point for me that I’d had the chance to hear the Aizuri Quartet live, not so very long after the quartet had been formed, performing string quartets by Lembit Beecher and Béla Bartók.  What a pleasure it is now to have the opportunity to hear from the Aizuri’s members—and from Steinhardt—something of what it takes to do what they do so well.

This is going to be old hat to those who know the genre, but here are just a couple examples that made me sit up and pay attention:

Steinhardt noted, of Antonin Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, op. 105, B. 193 (1895), that A-flat major is probably the hardest key of all for string players to play, as “it uses no open strings and therefore makes the task of playing in tune that much more difficult.” Dvořák was a string player, so he had to know what he was demanding in choosing that key. Steinhardt affably commented, “If we meet in the afterlife, I plan to confront Dvořák and simply ask, sir, why A-flat?”

Mia Chung, in her discussion of the Scherzo: alla bulgarese (in a Bulgarian manner) from Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5 Sz. 102 (1934), noted the asymmetrical meters, with eighth note units grouped as 4+2+3 in the scherzo and 3+2+2+3 in the trio “or in other combinations [e.g. 2+3+3+2 and 2+3+2+3] for the accompanying voices even as the first violin carries on” with the grouping of 3+2+2+3.  When the Aizuri Quartet performed the scherzo and trio, do you think I could even follow that count? Not at all, yet the Aizuri performed the scherzo/trio as if they’d been dancing alla bulgarese since before they were born.

Listening List

Antonin Dvořák String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, op. 105, B. 193 (1895)

On Spotify: Guarneri String Quartet (the quartet number has been mislabeled on Spotify)

On YouTube: Shanghai String Quartet

Béla Bartók String Quartet No. 5 Sz. 102 (1934)

Aizuri Demonstration: If you do nothing else, please watch the Aizuri demonstration. To sign up for the course is free and entails no ongoing obligation, though I’ll acknowledge it will make for a very strong enticement to embark on the entire course.

On Spotify: Emerson String Quartet

On YouTube: Takács Quartet

Bonus Track: Watch the Aizuri perform Beethoven Quartet Op. 59 No. 3 Mvts 3 & 4 (4th movement begins at about 5:28, and watch them fly!)


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Credits: The quotations may be found at the links noted in the post. The images, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

Guest Post: Curt Barnes on the Bach Cello Suites, African Masks, and Collective Genius

Ngil Society mask from the Fang people, Gabon

Ngil Society mask from the Fang people, Gabon

If you are moved by Mischa Maisky’s or Anner Bylsma’s versions of the Bach cello suites, does it matter that they’re not the way Bach heard them? I like Baroque cellists’ interpretations of the Bach suites, which may be closer to his intentions, but I absolutely wouldn’t be without modern interpretation. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are another example: they are available in Baroque renditions, but my favorites are played with more vibrato and expression, in a post-Romantic style. And the Goldberg Variations? Like many I prefer them played on an instrument Bach never heard, the modern piano, with nuance not available to him, and I would bridle at these versions being called “illegitimate.” Seeking to justify my bias, I came to my own conclusions about it after connecting it to Robert Goldwater’s theory of African masks. Continue reading

Sun-Dogs: James MacMillan’s Setting of a Michael Symmons Roberts Poem

The Sun-Dog Painting (Vädersolstavlan)

The Sun-Dog Painting (Vädersolstavlan)

Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?
—Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene 1

I’m not terribly versed in choral music, to say the least, but little by little I’ve been adding pieces to my personal “canon.” Until David Nice noted that James “MacMillan took a leaf out of [Benjamin Britten’s] ‘The Driving Boy’ with the wonderful whistling tune in a choral masterpiece, Sun-Dogs,” I’d not been aware of the piece or the poem MacMillan set. I’ve since listened to Sun-Dogs again and again. Continue reading

Forms of Resurrection: Wendell Berry’s Poems and the Music of Shawn Jaeger

1 IMG_6140_edited-1Again we come
to the resurrection
of bloodroot from the dark

—Wendell Berry

Sometimes a particular piece of music takes hold and thoroughly captures my imagination. Shawn Jaeger’s The Cold Pane is one such piece. While out walking in search of the first signs of spring, Again, the final song in his lovely setting of five poems by Wendell Berry, accompanies me on my route. Continue reading

Summoning the Sun with Britten’s Spring Symphony

Hymn to the Sun. engraving by William Miller 1872

Hymn to the Sun. engraving by William Miller 1872

Each day now, as I look out over the hills, I mark the snow’s receding and watch as deer forage in brown patches that emerge. As I look, I’m gauging when the local rail trail might be free of snow so I can jog and walk outside, rather than eyeing my treadmill balefully (or perhaps the treadmill is balefully eyeing me). Every now and then, but not as often as I should, I get on it, with considerable empathy for the hamster on her wheel. Continue reading